She was an Aussie-Lab mix, black and white with blue eyes, and would have been 15 years old on Valentine's Day next year. The last part of her life was painful and challenging, with pretty severe arthritis. We were using pain meds and encouraging her to eat with lots of good home cooking added to her regular food. But too many of the things she enjoyed were gone . . . daily walks, climbing the stairs to sit guarding the kitchen doorway, and being with us, her family, most of the time.
Oreo started out as our daughter Cassie's dog, when she was 10. I was the most reluctant, because I knew that my level of bonding would make it very difficult to say goodbye. And indeed it was. Oreo died peacefully, in her own way and time at 9 PM, on Sunday, December 14, 2008.
For the last year or so, she had become more my dog than anyone's. Because of being unable to climb the stairs, she was confined to the basement, where I work, mostly at the computer. She became my sidekick, cheering me on as I worked. She had access to the deck and yard off the basement, and I built her a series of shelters out there, including the last, a mini straw bale house. And I walked with her daily, until it just became too painful, though to the very end, she loved putting on her leash because it had always meant going for a walk!
I stocked a Mother Hubbard's cupboard for her . . . chicken soup, beef stew, hot dogs, pasta, tuna, anything that would tempt her to eat. We talked about “putting Oreo to sleep” but it was unthinkable to me, it felt like I was killing my dog. Her eyes were still so alive! And as long as she was continuing to eat with some gusto, I felt that her time had not yet come. But about a week before she died, she stopped eating, and very quickly grew very thin. And was much more obviously in pain.
So, we began to talk more seriously about having her “put to sleep” . . . and about where we would bury her. Discussing the details made it more real somehow, and so made it more bearable. Sometime that week, I sensed that Oreo was telling me that she wanted to die in the snow. It was too warm to snow at the time, and the weather was clear, but I was getting this message nonetheless. The way was still not clear for me though, and even seeing her pain, there was still ambivalence.
So I decided to call Barbara Mariano, who I'd heard several times on KVMR. I was impressed with her level of insight, intuition, and caring . . . she was so obviously reaching the animals and speaking for them. We set a tentative meeting time for the following Tuesday. Barbara asked me to send a picture and brief description of Oreo. After seeing this, she suggested that we talk earlier, so we arranged to “meet” on the phone at 10 AM Sunday morning.
Barbara tuned in to Oreo and spoke for her in the first person. Here is what Oreo had to say . . . “My back is hurting a lot, mostly on the right side. I have nerve pain at 5-7 on a scale of 10. I have fairly constant shooting pains that are very sharp. There is some reprieve, but I never know when the pain is going to hit. I am so sad to leave, you've have been the best family ever. I'm glad that you're letting Barbara talk for me. I'm trying to make it to Christmas, but probably will not be able to. I have an iron will!! That's what's seen me through these difficult times. Sometime in the next few days, have a ritual for me. Have a gathering, some good food, light a candle, and walk down memory lane with me.” Barbara asked what our plans were. I said we planned to go out to our property that day to dig Oreo's grave. And make the arrangements to have her “put to sleep” perhaps on Wednesday. Barbara said that Oreo was very excited about us digging her grave on our property! She said, “My name is Wonder Woman! I have done a great job taking care of this family, I took care of everything for you, and kept you all safe. I was so busy taking care of you that I didn't have much time to be affectionate, but I LOVE you all very much. There is nothing I really need now, but we do need to talk about this death thing.”
Barbara sensed some ambivalence over Oreo's being ready to go, but after I shared some of my ambivalence, she realized it was probably that she was sensing. Oreo said to me, “In light of your being my Mom, I have so much gratitude, but I'm exhausted. I wanted to wait for you to be ready because I'm grateful to you, but am very fine with you helping me to go run, I SO want to run again!” I told Barbara that I was ready to let her go, would dig her grave today, and make arrangements to help her on Tuesday or Wednesday. Oreo was happy to hear this.
We cooked 2 hamburgers, lit a candle and talked about Oreo's life with us. She lay there listening, and ate every scrap of hamburger! We then revised our plans and decided to dig her grave here where we've rented for the past 5 years, since it was Oreo's home, and she'd never been out to the property with us. So, after the ritual, we went out to dig, and as I was digging, Oreo walked by, looked at me, nodded, and said, “OK, this is it.” We took turns digging, started in 3 different places and kept hitting tree roots.
We changed plans again and decided to dig out at the property after all. Then it started to snow. Oreo had walked out to her favorite spot under the trees, and lay down. Cassie and I tried to get her up and inside since it was snowing, but she would not/could not move. I remembered her words, “ I want to die in the snow.” We made her as comfortable as we could there under the trees, covered her with one of my mother's black and white afghans, and a folded up tarp. We propped my father's old umbrella over her head (they had a very special relationship), so she stayed warm and dry.
We checked on her periodically, but had the sense that she wanted to do this on her own. Her eyes were full of fear at first, I imagined because she was paralyzed at that point, but later they became more peaceful. At 9 PM, I heard her say, “This is my gift to you . . . I know you didn't want to force my death.” I went outside, and she was gone. Many tears, of course, but we pulled out a box of pictures, found many of Oreo and the life and times we shared with her. We remembered, and I clearly felt her romping around the room, running circles around us. We went outside, wrapped her up in the afghan, folded her up in the tarp, and secured it until we could take her body out to the property and bury her.
Later that night, as I was working on the project she had been cheering on, I felt her presence beside me, and she said, “Come on, get this done, it will be good for the family!” We kept her body close for almost 2 days after she died because the weather wouldn't allow us to go out and dig until Tuesday. We dug her grave in the pure red clay with not much effort, and placed her in the ground, on a hill overlooking the Valley, the Buttes, and the Coastal Range . As we finished, the sky cleared, and there was a beautiful sunset. Halfway down, we found an unusual rock . . . flat, about 2 inches thick, shaped like a perfect silhouette of Oreo's head. I plan to paint her face on it as a marker. We realized that she wanted to be out there as a “draw” to bring us out, encouraging us to build a house and live there, close to her.
I checked in with Barbara on Wednesday. She again spoke as Oreo, saying, “I'm here, playing in the snow. Look Mom, no pain! I am happy, happy, happy, thank you for letting me go and allowing it to happen the way it did. Wish I could have had more hamburgers! I will always be here at your side, as long as you need and want me to be. Your empowerment is my joy . . . it would give me great pleasure to go on with you.” Barbara then heard the spirit world say, “Another great soul has passed. She is so much more than ‘Oreo' . . . “
In retrospect, I see her guarding our threshold, looking, looking, looking at us, so intently. I see now that that look was watchfulness and caring, guarding and guiding. And I realize that there is so much more on so many levels that we know nothing or very little of. The animals we keep by our sides have so much to give and tell us, if we would only see and hear them. I think too of the classic fairy tales, and the hero who, faced with an impossible task is helped by creatures he was kind and helpful to along the way. The Latin root “anima” means “breath” or “life” . . . and so they are, with much to tell us about how to live on this mother planet. The grace of Oreo's death still hovers over us, making it an especially sacred winter solstice.
Here's a poem Cassie wrote for her, for us . . .
I dug your grave
in the snow
White softly falling
on red clay earth
It was your time
It was your time
Death comes for us all
Not as much for your passing
As for those left behind
The sudden quiet of a house
Bereft of you
For my father,
Who was a kindred spirit for you in your youth
For my mother,
Who nurtured you in your old age,
Whose childhood would have been incomplete
As we bury you under soft white
Your death grasps us, and enjoins us,
Nevada City, CA